Winning With Big Surf Stripers
by Frank Daignault
Anglers fish as though they don’t expect to land anything that is any good.
oday there is a universal frustration as a result of anglers catching hundreds of bass in the striper surf but rarely ever getting a real trophy. For many, even keepers are a rare treat in their results. Here is a rundown of common mistakes that prevent many of us from landing the trophy stripers that are out there.
FISHING TOO LIGHT
Imagine hooking the bass of your dreams only to have it run you out of line. The trap is in what we are all in the habit of catching. Face it, what is the point of swinging a heavy conventional rod with a big game surf reel loaded with 60 pound test line all night when you have been fishing all week in a spot where even a keeper is rare, let alone a trophy striper? Invariably the gang begins fishing lighter, choosing equipment that is appropriate for school stripers. It takes over the entire hot spot where the joys of light tackle become group sport. Fishing with heavy fresh water tackle soon becomes the thing to do as the gang becomes attached to lighter, easier to use outfits which are perfect for bass under ten pounds. The joy of it is that marginal keepers are just right for the equipment of choice. Then, the sound of parting mono goes off like a small caliber rifle somewhere in the crowd. The bass that stood the chance of making that angler’s season departs with his plug. It happens all the time. Never forget that when fishing in the ocean no one knows what is out there, even when we think that the sizes of fish we had last night are the same ones we are fishing over tonight. That can change in minutes let alone from one night to another.
FIGHT BALANCE AND INEXPERIENCE
Imagine fishing for 30 years for a fifty-pounder and, just when you finally hook it, your line breaks like a child’s kite string. Breaking a line is caused by two related elements: the line’s strength and how hard the angler pulls when combined with the fight of the fish. Only the heaviest lines can withstand the combined forces of both fish and fisherman. Even then, an unbreakable line, and there are some being used today, puts unnecessary strain on the other tackle where snaps open out of sheer force, hooks are straightened, bad knots fail or fish flesh at the point of hook penetration is simply torn. The angler never knows how much hook penetration he has and fish are just dropped because of shallow hook penetration.
At first blush many think that the safe thing to do when fighting a good fish, and you will know it quickly when you hook up, is to just baby the fight where no real forces are applied to test the tackle. The logic is that no tackle failures are likely if we take it easy. However, when we do that while fighting any trophy gamefish, we risk running out of line. Every yard that is given to a gamefish easily is a yard that has to be recovered and stored on the reel. This consumes time that affords the gamester a greater opportunity to escape by a simple drop, a change of direction that changes the angle of pull, or an unforeseen circumstance like a change of tide, boat traffic, other anglers, even a bluefish nipping at a weed dancing on your line. I have seen all these things cost surfmen great fish. That is why we call it “fight” balance.
We have to pull hard enough to command the fish without exceeding the strength of every item in the chain of things between angler and gamefish. We have to make sure that fish earn every foot of line. And, the more time spent in the effort, the more time there is for something to go wrong.
YOUR UNCLE’S ADMONISHMENT – “SLACK LINE”
Imagine what your uncle would have said had you failed to “keep a tight line.” We all learned in our early years of fishing that a common cause of loss in all fishing is failure to keep a tight line. You are fighting something a little better than you are in the habit of doing, and your uncle is standing behind you coaching and saying, “Keep a tight line.” Of course if you drop the fish, after all those years of fishing with him, the natural conclusion is that you must have given slack. We raised four kids fishing and I can tell you that any time one of them dropped a dream fish, and it happened to all of us, they blamed themselves by saying that there must have been slack in the line. Yes, true, slack can be the cause, but often we don’t know and never will know what went wrong. Hook penetration is an inexact science. If a lifetime of fishing, most of it in the striper surf, has taught me anything, it is that the best fishermen drop fish. Of course the worst ones drop too many.
CONTROL – PANIC AND HURRY
Imagine drawing a blank, not knowing what to do, the one night you are required to know what you are doing. Surfcasting is an athletic endeavor demanding stamina, strength, perseverance, foresight, and, above all, a clear head to aid in the processes of decision. We are not chugging along in the sunlight with lines trailing behind the boat shouting ‘Johnny grab that’ to our passengers. With a clear head we can react to every change, even if it is to do nothing at all. People who soil themselves over a good fish could never be clear headed enough to do what has to be done to win over a great striped bass. Of course some of them are lucky. Each time the situation changes, the angler is forced to make a corresponding decision. If your fish changes direction and goes east, are fishers there? When your fish sulks and sounds, are there obstructions that could foul a line or cut it? How much line out is too much line? Better spots are outflows where boat traffic can cut your line and the person who cuts you off may not even know it. When do you shine your light on your tight rod as a warning? Even the choices you make when landing a big bass can mean the difference. Remember that a 50-pound striper is as big as a man is. In a raging, white water surf, with snotty foam blowing over the end of your jetty often lifting you on each wave or raining down on you in a pushy way, the time for the right choices has come. No second chances.
SUITABLE LANDING CONTINGENCIES
Imagine fighting a fish until it lays belly up and you have no way to climb down to it for hand or gaff? You are supposed to be ready for eventualities before they really happen. So it is with fishing for a trophy striper. No matter how many years that you surfcast, you want to be ready both for the unexpected as well as the obvious. Many of the places where you might contact a difficult fish present impossible landing situations, which have to be thought about before the moment of truth is upon you. Crowds, which gather at outflows, can prevent your landing a cow. Know where you have the best chance to get a fish in and be ready to go down there to get it. Other anglers can help you but know the depth of their experience or it could cost you a fish you have waited for all your life. Often the person who offers to help has never seen a big fish and, when that fish is rising and falling in the waves, he will panic and do nothing – a surfcasting variation of buck fever. People are often even afraid of big fish.
When you do go down to grab the fish of your dreams, how are you going to get it out? It is very difficult to climb slick rocks while carrying the equivalent of a small deer. Worse, on big water nights, you had better be prepared to hurry because the next wave could kill you. When on nasty jetties or out on flats far from the dry shore, I always have a section of rope with a hasp for towing or escaping with a dream fish. You’ll be thankful you had it when scurrying up the jetty stones while green water booms around you in the dark.
In rocky places like Montauk, Narragansett or Newport, I always have a place picked out for a good bass where I can use my long handled gaff. I am aware that there are some states that have banned gaffs. If you are fishing in one, you had better be even more discerning about where you fish. I won’t fish where landing fish is impossible. Sure, I have seen surfcasters win great battles with great fish without having even a clue about what they were doing. They were just lucky and there is already enough of that in fishing. When it gets to the point where a big fish is important, I want to handle it as though I had done it before.
Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Frank Daignault, All Rights Reserved
Frank Daignault is the author of Striper Surf, Twenty Years on the Cape, Striper Hot Spots, The Trophy Striper, Eastern Tides and Fly Fishing the Striper Surf.
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Articles by Frank Daignault